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SPIEL '17 Preview: Sakura Hunt, or Between Our Two Lives There Is Also the Life of the Cherry Blossom

W. Eric Martin
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I've traveled to Japan a few times to cover Tokyo Game Market, but I've yet to see the annual cherry blossoms since they typically bloom in early April in Tokyo and I show up in May. (I also missed out on the tulip fields in full bloom when my wife and I lived in the Netherlands, visiting the field only after they'd all been cut down, leaving us to ogle at vast fields of cut stems.)

Sakura Hunt from Yu Maruno and JUGAME STUDIO showcases these cherry blossoms in all their glory and gives folks like me the chance to enjoy them from afar, as well as the chance to miss seeing them once again. Now you can be disappointed all the time instead of only once a year!

In game terms, you're trying to collect sets of three cards, either in numerical sequence or bearing the same number. At the end of the game, you then arrange these cards in a panorama from low to high, scoring points if you have five or more cards in a row while also scoring bonus points for having three cards of the same number or three sake jokers. (Jokers can extend a panorama, allowing you to consider 1-2-3-4-J-6-7-8 as being connected, but you treat this as only a seven-card panorama since you were blitzed on sake on day 5 and don't remember it that well.)


Huge points for long panoramas


How do you acquire these gorgeous cards? From four hanami rows that are created over the course of the game. The rules explain that "hanami" is "a Japanese custom to enjoy and appreciate the blossoming of sakura", so you and your follow players seed these rows with cards, which you then claim on a later turn.

In more detail, you start with six cards in hand and on a turn you can:

• Place a card in your hand into a hanami row, then draw a new card, or
• Swap a card in your hand with a card already in a hanami row, or
• Pick up one card from a hanami row, then combine it with two cards from your hand to create a set, then draw a new card.

You score points for this last action, with the most points coming when four cards are in the row. Yes, you are trying to time the viewing of sakura to just the right moment to see them at their most beautiful. When you score, your hand size is reduced by one, making it a bit tougher to create sets in future turns. What's more, once you visit a hanami row and score from it, you can't score from it again. You must travel the country and score once from each of the four rows.


Purty


Once you've scored four times, you take only the first action for the rest of the game, thereby pushing it toward a conclusion because the game ends once all players have scored four times or all hanami rows hold six cards.

While beautiful in design, Sakura Hunt doesn't quite work as I think the designer intended, something I've experienced multiple times over five playings (4x 3p & 1x 2p) on a review copy from Japon Brand, which will sell the game at SPIEL '17. The problem comes from the swapping action because if players are paying attention, they don't want to create a row with four cards since doing so gives an opponent the chance to maximize their score (after which the row will have only three cards, thereby requiring another discard before you'll want to score there). Thus, someone with, say, an 8 and 9 in hand will swap one of these cards for a 10 in a row that has three cards, then on their next turn they'll swap this 10 for the card they laid down on the previous turn. At some point someone will break the cycle, either laying down a fourth card or settling for only two points, but this spinning of the wheels is frustrating.


Points for sets depend on how many cards are in a row when you take one


In some games, sure, you want to take a sideways step to see what other players are doing and be able to respond to their actions, but if everyone is shuffling sideways over multiple turns, then the game itself ceases to advance, at which point it begins to die. (Games are like sharks in this regard — well, like sharks that are obligate ram ventilators anyway.)

The rules contain a variant in which when you swap cards, you must place the newly received card on the table. This card is still part of your hand, but you can use it solely for creating a set, not for further swaps and not for placing in a row. This small change greatly affects how the game plays out because the laying out of a card commits you to playing it in the future, giving others the chance to scoop cards you might want and thereby offsetting the benefit that comes from swapping, namely setting up a row with a card that you want to score with in the future.

This variant complicates the table as you'll now have cards in hand, cards on the table that are to be considered in your hand, and cards in played sets, but I can't imagine playing without it as otherwise you'd just be swapping cards turn after turn until the heat death of the universe, which means you'd never see the sakura in real life.


Colored tokens let you mark a row once you've visited it
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Mon Oct 9, 2017 6:05 pm
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Crowdfunding Round-up: The 7th Sunset Panic Over Evil Potato Trench

W. Eric Martin
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• Hard to believe that only five months have passed since Gloomhaven raised nearly $4 million on Kickstarter, but here we are in October 2017 with another giant, heavily immersive adventure game piling up the bucks, this being The 7th Continent from Ludovic Roudy, Bruno Sautter, and French publisher Serious Poulp. As was the case with Gloomhaven, Serious Poulp is funding a new edition of The 7th Continent for all those who missed the game in the first place. In addition, the publisher is marketing an expansion — What Goes Up, Must Come Down — that adds another 250 cards to this weighty game. If nothing else, a quest for this game will help you explore your wallet... (KS link)

• In the category of games bearing famous IPs, we have Resident Evil 2: The Board Game from UK-based Steamforged Games Ltd., which last hit Kickstarter in mid-2016 to fund its take on Dark Souls. I guess Steamforged has its niche carved out. Any bets on what they'll adapt next? (KS link)

• Also lodged in that category is T2029: The Official Terminator 2 Board Game from Ian O'Toole and Australian publisher Rule & Make. As you might expect, players all take part in the Resistance against Skynet in the year 2029 while also needing to protect John Connor in 1995.
(KS link) We recorded an overview at Gen Con 50 should you care to learn more:




• Okay, that's three intense co-ops from non-U.S. publishers, so let's zag in the other direction for Sunset Over Water from Eduardo Baraf, Steve Finn, Keith Matejka, and Pencil First Games. Players in this game trek through the wilderness, create landscape paintings, then attempt to sell them. No one fires guns or falls off a cliff and needs a broken leg bound. I'm not sure how such games still exist, but here we are. (KS link)

• You might experience a similarly calm sensation in Spy Club from Randy Hoyt and Jason D. Kingsley, which is being co-published by frequent partners Foxtrot Games and Renegade Game Studios. In this cooperative game, you channel Encyclopedia Brown and Harriet the Spy to solve mysteries in your neighborhood, whether as one-off cases or as a sequence of cases that fit together in a larger story. From the BGG description: "Throughout the campaign, you'll unlock new modules with additional rules and story elements. With 40+ new modules and 150+ cards in the campaign deck, you can reset everything and play multiple campaigns — with a different story and gameplay experience emerging each time." (KS link)

• Deduction is also at the heart of Stephen Godot's Human Punishment: Social Deduction 2.0 from his own Godot Games, with each of the 4-16 players being either human, machine, or outlaw and wanting to hunt down everyone else on the other teams. The graphics seem like a modern take on the neon-heavy look of Blade Runner. (KS link)




• Japanese creators can now use Kickstarter as well, and I think the first such project from Japan is for Yota Suzuki's Space Editor from TACTICAL GAMES. The game takes you back to the dawn of time, then challenges you to create the universe (no small feat!) by taking control of one of the five elements and ensuring that element remains dominant when you and the other gods decide to knock off for the day and call it done. (KS link)

Potato Pirates is the latest take on a game that will teach kids how to code, with this design coming from Singapore-based technology company Codomo. More generally, this seems like a "take that" style of game that allows for loops and conditional elements to do more and take advantage of opponents in particular circumstances. (KS link)

Nothing Now Games is back on Kickstarter for a second go at Panic!, a bidding and bluffing system from James Ernest in which players are commodity brokers who must escape a market crash before everyone else in order to stay on top of the financial pack. As seems to be common for an Ernest design, his game system has been used to create three different designs in one box: a bidding game, a drafting game, and a trick-taking game. (KS link)

• Another game getting a relaunch is ELO Darkness from Tommaso Mondadori, Alberto Parisi, and Reggie Games, with this being a two-player customizable MOBA-inspired card game that can also accommodate four players in teams of two. (KS link)

• Marshall Britt and Andrew Toth's Re-Chord from Yanaguana Games places you in a guitar battle that has you trying to complete secret chords to score points while also placing the guitar picks of your hidden color in the best scoring positions. (KS link)

• After releasing multiple versions of its Evolution board game, North Star Games is now bringing the design to PC, Mac, and mobile devices. (KS link)

• Whoa, here's a blast from the past. Outer Limit Games is funding a new version of Rui Alípio Monteiro's Trench, an abstract strategy game for two players inspired by trench warfare tactics from World War I. (KS link)

I interviewed Wise Games, the original publisher of Trench, at the 2013 Spielwarenmesse trade show in Nürnberg, Germany, the first time I had attended that event. It's nice to be able to re-use videos for an explanation of something coming back to market. (P.S.: I still own that shirt.)



Editor's note: Please don't post links to other Kickstarter projects in the comments section. Write to me via the email address in the header, and I'll consider them for inclusion in a future crowdfunding round-up. Thanks! —WEM
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Sun Oct 8, 2017 1:05 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Cosmogenesis, or Building Blocks for a New, Better Solar System

W. Eric Martin
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Are you ready to create a solar system? A solar system that includes the board game Cosmogenesis from Yves Tourigny and Ludonova, a game in which you create a solar system?

While I wish this level of meta was included in the game, perhaps with a tiny image of Cosmogenesis being visible on an asteroid, I'll have to wait until an expansion for it to exist. For now, we have only a well-crafted game about crafting solar systems, a game that had others saying, "I thought this was Exoplanets at first glance" and "How does this compare to Planetarium?" Apparently you can depict cosmic dust coalescing into bodies in only so many ways.

In Cosmogenesis, you are the star — literally. You represent the sun in the system-to-be, and you're going to accumulate bodies orbiting around you, deciding to place a gas giant here, add some moons there, and direct a comet into a terrestrial body to form an atmosphere somewhere within your finite habitable zone. You're not the only star on this cosmic broadway, however, so you'll need to take turns drafting what you want and hope those other suns don't eclipse your choices.

In more detail, you start with a board bearing a few orbital rings and 1-4 asteroids depending on where you start in the turn order. At the start of each of the six rounds, you set up the central board with a number of objectives, asteroids, terrestrial objects, gas giants, and "exotic objects" based on the number of players in four regions of the board, then players take turns choosing objects. Once you've chosen something from a region, you're done with the region for that round. What you do with the object depends on what it is:

• Gas giants occupy the closest empty orbital ring to become a planet. Gas giants have no other reason for existence than to be a planet. That's all they live for. It's a simple life, but one for which they're well-suited.

• Terrestrial bodies, which come in four sizes, can be placed as planets (in the closest empty orbital ring), or as moons for existing planets (assuming the moon-to-be is smaller), or as something to be smashed into an existing terrestrial moon or planet in order to increase the size of the smashee. Why would you do this? Because only terrestrial bodies of size 3 or 4 can have an atmosphere, and you'll likely want to create a few of these in order for life to develop beyond the bacterial stage. There's also the issue of...

• Planetary objectives give you goals in life. Nana Nebula always said it was good to have goals, so you'll acquire four such goals over the course of the game. Once you meet the minimum conditions on a planetary objective, you can spend an additional action to celebrate this stage of existence, revealing the objective and obtaining both immediate rewards and points to be tallied at game's end.

• Stellar objectives differ from planetary objectives in that they're always visible and you score points for them at game's end depending on how well you meet the depicted condition, whether it's asteroids as moons, or gas giants with rings, or planets of the largest size, or moons of size 2, or fifteen other things. What's more, if you outshine each other star in this category, then you receive additional points.


Most of the stellar objectives; how well can you interpret them?


• Comets can collide with gas giants to give them rings (which can be good for both types of objectives) or collide with large terrestrial bodies to create an atmosphere.

• Asteroids can be captured as moons of size 1 or collided with existing terrestrial bodies to increase their size or collided with a terrestrial body to place bacteria on it or combined with each other to create a comet or exchanged for more orbital rings should you desire a big family or placed in the asteroid belt for use later. For hunks of featureless rock, they're quite versatile.

• Exotic objects offer a wide range of benefits depending on what's depicted on them, from asteroids to comets to additional actions to the ability to move intelligent life from one world to another. These objects are all double-sided, so the particular bonuses will determined at random wen you lay out the tiles to be drafted at the start of the round.

Each time you draft an object, you do something with that object, then you can choose to use one or more exotic objects that you possess in addition to taking an optional additional action, whether revealing a planetary objective or using an asteroid or comet that you acquired on an earlier turn.


Time to start round two; here are your choices


After each player has chosen four objects, you return unselected celestial objects to the drafting bag, remove unchosen objectives from the game, advance life one step up the evolutionary ladder (from bacteria to jellyfish to fish to lizards to intelligent life, which may or may not coincide with human beings), then prepare for the next round. After six rounds, you advance once more on the evolutionary wheel, then tally your points on ye olde scorepad, which is as much of a pain as it always is, especially since you need to compute three stellar objectives per player, possibly with bonus points for each. Thankfully we have already reached the evolutionary stage of having an opposable thumb, which allows us to note such things instead of having to remember all of them.

Gameplay in Cosmogenesis — which I've played twice on a review copy from Ludonova, once with three players and once with four — is simple, while the game choices are not, mostly due to you needing to time everything in just the right way so that the bodies mesh in the most effective way possible. You might need a second moon of size 2 in order to finish a planetary objective, but only size 1 objects are available, so you could draft one, then ram an asteroid into it, then on your next turn play the objective, which gives you another asteroid and a bonus comet, so maybe you want to draft a gas giant first so that you can use that comet on something, etc.

The game lasts only 24 turns in packages of six rounds, yet with a possible additional action on each turn, not to mention the exotic objects, your choices explode and expand, leaving you unsure of what's best when. On top of this, you have the standard worries of any drafting game, with you wanting A, B and C, but able to take only two of the three and possibly not even that if someone else takes an object first.




The rules are messier and less straightforward than they could have been because they focus on setting over systems. The rules have sections on coalescence for planet creation and on the capturing of moons, for example, instead of something more flowcharty to mirror what's described above. When playing the game, you'll think, "I took a terrestrial body, so tell me what I can do with it." Or "I took a comet; now what are my choices?"

You want the rules to show the paths on which you can travel, not include a section on colliding that features subsections explaining what happens depending on what is being collided into what. Start with the objects, the things that will be handled during play, and tell us what to do with them. Such an approach would also make it easier to reference rules questions during play. Want to double-check something about asteroids? Turn to the "asteroid" section and you'll find everything there.

Along similar lines, the player aids are either too large and unwieldy or too small and of less aid than one might wish. The rulebook contains image charts that show what happens when a terrestrial body collides with something or when an asteroid collides with something, but the player aid detailing your actions is merely a text list that sort of jogs your mind as to what you can do, but not enough to understand how things actually work.

Aside from these quibbles, the gameplay in Cosmogenesis provides just the challenge that a young naked star needs — to surround yourself with those who will never leave you and who will satisfy whatever oddball demands you might find yourself grappling with.


A quartet of quirky space quadrants
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Sat Oct 7, 2017 1:05 pm
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New Game Round-up: Devil Pig Readies Heroes of Black Reach, Renegade Revisits the North Sea, and Eurydice Explores Zombology

W. Eric Martin
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• In May 2017, I posted brief news of a deal between Devil Pig Games and Games Workshop to release a game line in the Warhammer 40,000 universe that makes use of DPG's "Heroes System" from Heroes of Normandie.

The base game in that line is Warhammer 40,000: Heroes of Black Reach, a two-player game that pits Ultramarines against Orks that includes an eight-scenario campaign and hundreds of bits and retails for $75. As with Heroes of Normandie, multiple supplements will be available, including Orks Reinforcement and Ultramarines Reinforcement (with these two items each having a four-scenario campaign and more units), Ork Freebooterz and Ultramarines Vanguard Veteran Squad (with these being additional bits available solely via the DPG webstore), and the Drop Zone Demo Kit, with this being a smaller standalone two-player game with a single scenario for $25 that can serve as an introduction to the entire line, while also being compatible with it. Chaos and Eldar armies are in the queue for release in 2019.

IELLO will distribute the Heroes of Black Reach line in the U.S., and the game is part of its "Elite Release" program in which certain brick-and-mortar retailers will be able to sell these titles starting March 15, 2018, whereas other B&M stores will get the games for a May 10 release and online retailers can start selling the game on May 24. Apparently we need many more fields in which to list release dates on a game because things are getting complicated.

Renegade Game Studios seems to announce a new game at least once a week, and the latest addition to its release calendar is a pair of titles due out Q4 2017 that were previously funded on Kickstarter: Hall of Heroes and Fields of Fame, two expansions for Shem Phillips' Raiders of the North Sea — and the Renegade version of that game is due to hit the U.S. market on October 11, 2017.

• In addition to these expansions to the North Sea line, Renegade has announced a Q2 2018 release date for The Tea Dragon Society Card Game, a design by Steve Ellis and Tyler Tinsley that is based on The Tea Dragon Society graphic novel by Katie O'Neill. No details about the game have been revealed beyond its impending existence.

• Designer James Ernest took the basics of a game created by author Pat Rothfuss for the novel "The Wise Man's Fear" and turned it into the actual game Tak. He's now doing something similar for a fantasy novel in the works by Sonia Lyris. Here's an overview of Rochi from Ernest:

Quote:
Rochi is a gambling game for 2-8 players, played with a Tarot-style deck with six suits of different sizes. It's a new deck design for us, and it's a whole new way to think about how gambling games should work. There is no betting, very little bluffing, and six different pots!

Along with Rochi, we have developed a couple more games in the same family: another card game called Roche, and a dice game called Rugen. These are both standard self-working casino games.

Rochi will be published by King of the Castle Games in 2018, but if you're interested in checking out the game now, you can download the rules and materials from Ernest's Cheapass Games website.

• Designer Jackson Pope used to self-publish games (and publish designs from others) under the Reiver Games brand, but he stopped around 2010. (He's detailed what went wrong on his "Creation and Play" blog.)

The itch to design games didn't go away, though, so in 2015 he returned to the method of how he launched his first game, Border Reivers, and decided to sell a handmade limited edition of Zombology, a semi-cooperative game in which 3-8 "scientists" attempt to cure a zombie plague using "unlikely cures such as homeopathy, healing crystals and a vegan diet". He's now established a new company — Eurydice Games — under which to release the game, and he's making two hundred more handmade copies of Zombology to sell through his website. So retro!
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Thu Oct 5, 2017 1:05 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: TimeBomb Evolution, or Time for a Rainbow-Colored Rematch

W. Eric Martin
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Whenever a sequel appears for a successful game, it is almost always more complicated than the original title. Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, and Pandemic all have many examples of this dynamic, with each sequel following an equation like "Base Game + Somethin' Somethin' = Newish Snazzier Game". This equation shouldn't be a surprise because complicated things are less likely to become runaway hits than simpler things. Movies tend to follow the same formula as a sequel is usually "Most or All of the Characters/Things You Originally Liked + Something New". It's hard to make the soup simpler when you keep adding things to the pot.

In mid-2015, I previewed Yusuke Sato's TimeBomb after being introduced to the game at Tokyo Game Market in May 2015. TimeBomb is a straightforward hidden identity game, with SWAT agents needing to find the right number of successes among each player's hidden cards so that a bomb doesn't go off, while being misdirected in their efforts by terrorists who are hiding on the SWAT team. You can start playing the game immediately and use the first couple of moves to teach others how to play. If someone goofs and sets off the bomb accidentally, say "oops", shuffle the cards, and play again.

In 2016, Sato and publisher New Board Game Party introduced TimeBomb II, which used a similar formula while giving players a hand of cards that they would play to locations in a quest to uncover the terrorists' three hideouts.

Now Sato and New Board Game Party have released TimeBomb Evolution, with the game having debuted at TGM in May 2017 and now being prepared for release at SPIEL '17 in October. As before, TimeBomb Evolution follows the formula of the original game, with SWAT members looking for 4-6 "Success" cards (with that number being based on the player count) and with terrorists hoping to survive four rounds if they don't manage to set off the bomb any earlier. In more detail, here's how the original TimeBomb works:

Quote:
To set up, you take as many "Success" cards as the number of players, the single "Boom!!" card, and as many "Safe" cards as needed for the deck to equal five times the number of players, e.g., thirty cards total with six players. Each player takes a secret role card at random, with four SWAT cards being in the mix for six players and three SWAT cards for four or five players. After looking at your role card, look at the five cards you were dealt, then shuffle them and lay them out in a line with the backs being face up. Choose a start player at random.

The start player takes the nippers and "cuts" one of the cards in front of another player. This player reveals the card, then uses the nippers to cut someone else's card. This continues until 4-6 cards have been cut, with this number equaling the number of players. You then take all of the face-down cards, shuffle them, then deal four cards to each player, with players once again looking at their cards, then shuffling them and placing them in a face-down row.

This process continues for at most four rounds. If all of the "Success" cards are revealed before the end of the fourth round, the game ends and the SWAT team wins. If this doesn't happen — or if the "Boom!!" card is revealed at any time — the game ends and the terrorists win.

TimeBomb Evolution removes all the boring "Safe" cards that do nothing except draw out a sigh of disappointment when you reveal one of them instead of a "Success" and replaces them with six sets of colored bombs.


Learning the game ahead of Tokyo Game Market


To set up TimeBomb Evolution, you choose as many colored sets of cards as the number of players, shuffle them, remove a number of cards equal to the number of players from the deck (without revealing them), shuffle in 4-6 "Success" cards, then deal five cards to each player. Choose someone to start with the nippers and you're off!

The big difference compared to TimeBomb is that the deck doesn't have a single "Boom!!" card that serves as a terrorist victory if it's revealed; instead, if four cards of the same color are revealed before all the "Success" cards, then the bomb goes off and the terrorists win. Now instead of all the tension in the game being instantiated into a single card, the tension is spread all over the place. On the first few card reveals, the color is meaningless, but once you see the second instance of a color, everyone starts paying attention and saying things at the start of the round like, "I have a 'Success', but also two red, so don't cut any of my cards!" Do they mean that, or are they lying, perhaps hiding multiple "Success" cards so that the SWAT team won't find them?

This simple change gives everyone more of a stake in the game because even having a hand of nothing but colored bombs gives you information about what others don't have, and you can sometimes use this information to get clues as to who might not be telling the whole truth.

What's more, TimeBomb Evolution includes variant rules that ups the challenge even further by giving special abilities to both the "Success" cards and the colored bombs. Under these rules, when you reveal a "Success", you place that card on a colored bomb that's been revealed to provide protection. That color will no longer win the terrorists the game when the fourth card is revealed. That's good for the SWAT team, right? Yes, except perhaps when a terrorist is the one who gets to place the "Success" card and they choose a color with only one card (thereby outing themselves as a bad guy) or choose a color that will perhaps lead to SWAT members revealing cards from a player who they would otherwise ignore.

The counterweight to this benefit comes from a half-dozen bomb effects. Yellow bombs, for example, can't have protection placed on them, and when a blue bomb is revealed, you must remove a "Success" that is currently providing protection, thereby possibly causing an immediate explosion. Green explodes when only three cards have been revealed (instead of four), whereas purple blows up immediately if two purple cards are revealed in a row. Red cards throw randomness onto the table because if someone reveals a red bomb, you don't get to choose whose card to cut next; instead you reveal a numbered card and circle around the table that many spaces, then cut a card in front of that player. You might want to have cut a card held by someone else, but too bad! (I've also played with this rule incorrectly, teaching that you pass the wire nippers to the player revealed at random. This is a less random way to play, I think, since the new player holding the nippers still chooses whose card to reveal, so consider it a variant of the variant.)


Round four begins; only one more success to go...


Pink bombs are the most dispiriting because for each pink card revealed, you can reveal one fewer card in the fourth round — assuming you make it that far. If you're SWAT, you find a few successes and think you're grooving, then you realize that you need to find two more "Success" in five picks. Whoops! You just revealed a pink, so now you have only three more picks to find that pair of successes. Good luck.

I've played Timebomb Evolution five or six times now on a review copy from Japon Brand, each time with five or six people. The heart of the game mimics that of the original, with some games ending in 1-2 minutes when something goes horribly wrong in the first few turns, and others coming down to the wire, but this version has your head spinning in new directions because more of what's happening each round matters to you, especially once you start using the effects of the variant. This variance is magnified by cards being removed at random at the start of the game. Do you even have three green cards in the deck any more? Do you have to worry about that color? The only way to remove the uncertainty is to see the cards in hand, thereby verifying the threat, but whether you can get anyone else to believe you is another matter.

Even better, the games play out differently depending on what happens when. In one game, we revealed a couple of blue cards in the first five moves, which was bad since two more blue cards would lose the game for the good guys, yet we also were thrilled that those blue cards didn't cost us any protection since we hadn't yet discovered any "Success" cards. Wait, why were we happy about not finding success? Ah, never mind — take joy where you can find it!

•••


P.S.: Immediately after I finished writing this preview, I checked Twitter and happened across this announcement of a new version of the original Time Bomb from Arclight Games. The bright rainbow colors are everywhere!

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Tue Oct 3, 2017 1:05 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Herbalism, or Guess for Success

W. Eric Martin
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Taiwanese publisher EmperorS4 has six games and one expansion on its SPIEL '17 release calendar, and after the success of Hanamikoji in 2016, which I previewed on BGG News, I'll be looking closely at all of them. No, Hanamikoji was not original to EmperorS4, having first been published in Japan in 2013, but when a publisher releases something you love, you pay attention to their other choices in the hope that something else measures up.

One of EmperorS4's new releases in 2017 is Herbalism, a 3-4 player game by Eros Lin and Liu Xiao, and the only two things this game has in common with Hanamikoji is the box size and the requirement that you be supremely clever with your choices, but maybe that will be enough for you.

The gameplay is set thousands of years ago in China during the birth of herb-based medicine. As an aspiring pharmacist, you have been tasked with figuring out which herbs are required to cure sick individuals in the countryside. Strangely, though, you are competing with others to determine which herbs these are, and you all want to be secretive with the herbs you hold, lest that information help someone else more than you. I'm not sure who would be so cruel as to withhold aid that could be shared with others, but without that competitive edge, you wouldn't have much of a game, so let's roll with it.




The herbs comprise a deck of fourteen cards, and at the start of each round, two cards at random will be tucked away while each player receives a hand of 3-4 cards depending on the player count. You can take notes on these cards if you want, but no player has in the two games that I've played and I don't think notes would have aided our deduction. Of course, I might just be a terrible note-taker and deduction-maker...

You want to guess the two hidden cards, and to do this, you will receive information or cards from other players, sometimes at the cost of a card of your own. Whatever these two hidden cards are, they will match one of the seven medicine cards shown below. Note that the center card represents cards that are the same color, whatever that color happens to be. (Each color has pips underneath it to remind you how many cards of each color are in the deck.)




On a turn, a player takes one of the available actions, and these actions can differ in each game or even from round to round (if you ignore the rule about keeping the same actions throughout the entire game). The rules suggest a few different combinations of actions, with the top two in the image below being recommended for your first game:

Appealing: Place your colored marker on one of the seven medicine cards shown above, then choose a player; this player must give you all the cards they have in hand of one of the two colors on that medicine card.
Curing: Place your colored marker on one of the seven medicine cards shown above to indicate which color combination you think is on the two hidden cards. Each other player in turn can pass, follow you (by placing their "follow" marker on the same card), or provide their own answer (by placing their marker on an unoccupied medicine card). Everyone who has placed their marker then looks at the hidden cards. If everyone is incorrect, they each lose 1 point, then the game continues; if someone is correct, they receive 3 points and anyone who followed them scores 1 point while all incorrect guesses are punished.




The other actions you can use, all of which involve you first placing your marker on a medicine card and choosing an opponent, are (from left to right in the bottom row):

Inquiring: Give the opponent a face-down card matching one of the two colors on the medicine card; they look at this card, then state how many cards they hold of the other color on the medicine card.
Feeding: Give the opponent a face-down card matching one of the two colors on the medicine card; they look at this card, then give you all the cards they hold of the other color.
Brewing: If possible, the opponent must give you one card of each color on the medicine card; if they have only one color, then they give you only one card.

The central medicine card that depicts all colors has special rules for each of the actions. When curing, if you choose this medicine card, then you win as long as the two hidden cards are the same color; when brewing, the opponent must give you two cards of the same color, with them choosing the color.

If a player guesses incorrectly when curing, they take no further actions in the round, but they can still be chosen as the target for other players' actions. If only one player remains in the round due to everyone else being terrible curers, then this last player must attempt a cure on their turn. Hope they were paying attention to all of the failures!




I've played Herbalism twice on a review copy from EmperorS4, once each with three and four players, with each game lasting about five rounds. In both games, we started with appealing and curing in the first round, then something else and curing in the second round, and so on. Some of the actions are similar, but the differences do matter. With appealing in play, the cards start clumping in players' hands because someone with a blue card who's passed one more will have to pass both blue cards together; with inquiring or feeding, you can split pairs or triples to ideally divide information among your fellow players.

One thing we haven't tried yet are the prediction tokens included in Herbalism as a variant. After taking a non-curing action, a player can claim a colored prediction token that doesn't match the color of a token they already have. For each token, if this color is among the hidden cards, the player scores 1 point, regardless of what they guessed or followed; if not, they lose 1 point for this token. This system is another way for a player to share information with their opponents while (possibly) profiting from doing so.

As you might expect, the three-player game gives you more control than the four-player game because you're more frequently deciding which action is being done (once you have multiple non-curing actions) and who the target of this action is. That said, you can certainly learn information from the actions of others, and one player in my 4p experience excelled at this; at the end of a round, he would explain how he put together info gained from three other players' actions to determine what he wanted to guess as a cure.

The thing is, however, that he would often guess when he was confident of only one of the hidden cards, with a 50% chance of the other card being correct. As with many other deduction games — such as Sherlock 13, which I previewed in October 2016 — the conflict between being right and being first pulls you in opposite directions. How sure do you want to be before guessing, especially since being first gets you three times as many points as being right, but only in the wake of someone else? With four players, sometimes you just want to for it since someone among the other three players will likely guess before you do. In practice, this wasn't necessarily a bad thing since many incorrect cures were proposed, but that itch to be first still remains. Thankfully you have herbs on hand to treat that itch...
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Sun Oct 1, 2017 9:47 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Minute Realms, or A City-Builder By Any Other Name...

W. Eric Martin
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Minute Realms from Stefano Castelli and dV Giochi is billed as "the most compact city-building game ever", but I think that statement does a disservice to the game because if you're like me, you have certain expectations when it comes to city-building games. When you play something in this genre, you probably expect (1) adjacency to matter in some way, such as when you're rewarded for building a park next to a playground or punished for building a slaughterhouse next to the kindergarten, and (2) expansion opportunities for things that already exist, such as being able to place additional floors on a building or upgrade a school to a college.

Minute Realms doesn't have either of these elements, and while technically each player is building their own city, they're building a city in some undefined medieval-ish time period when it might be good to have a monastery (depending on your particular circumstances in the game), but you don't care where it goes and the monastery isn't going to be altered once you plop it in whatever random spot seems best.

Instead I'd classify Minute Realms — with "minute" being pronounced like the unit of time, not like something extremely small — as a set-collection game, and the elements of those sets are city buildings from some undefined medieval-ish time period. Assemble — one might say "build", but I'm not that one — the best collection of buildings, and you win the game.

More precisely, Minute Realms is a set-collection game with a tight money management system. You will likely always be hustling for coins, and if you're not, then you're probably doing something wrong.

Taking a big picture look at this minute game, each round you add one card to your city, and at the end of eight rounds you tally the points in your city to see who wins. Most cards have a fixed point value, while some score based on how many buildings of a particular category (e.g., production or clerical) you have and a handful have special scoring rules, such as the bank in the image below which is worth 1 point for each coin you hold at the end of the game or the market that nets you 6 points for having one or more pairs of the indicated categories you have.


Looking for nobility to maximize my market


That's simple enough, but how do you acquire the cards? At the start of each round, one card is dealt face up in front of each player and two cards are placed in the center of the table. The round's starting player can take the card in front of them or they can swap their card for any other card revealed this round — but only if they can complete the trading requirements shown in the upper right corner of the card. (You ignore these requirements on the card in front of you, and this is important for several reasons explained later.) A red dot means you have to pay the cardholder (or the bank if the card is in the center of the table) 1 coin, a green dot means you receive a coin from the bank (since these are mostly production and residential buildings which supply resources and labor for your city), and a dude means you place an invader token face down on the round tracker board.

Wait, invaders? Yes, you might get sacked by invaders twice during Minute Realms, and this element does have you scratching your beard (or clean-shaven chin as the case might be) and thinking, "Maybe this is something of a city-building game after all", before you reject that notion and plant your foot firmly in the category of set-collecting. Let us maintain rigid categories against all reason!

At most one invader token can be placed in the round tracker each round, and these invaders have strength ranging from 0-2 so they're not overwhelming, but you're a wimpy city planner set collector, so a 2 is plenty strong enough to knock you on your back. You don't look at these tokens now; just let them set menacingly on the board while you get on with other things.


First round in a four-player game; note that the coin color will differ slightly in the final production


Once you've decided on a card and fulfilled any trading requirements needed, you can decide to pay the coin cost in the upper-left corner and add the card to your non-city or you can flip the card face down to provide 2 units of defense against invaders while also earning 2 coins from the bank. Why do you receive money when you build defense? Perhaps the burgess is paying you to pay the people manning the walls? I'm not sure, but I think it boils down to "This makes the game better". Some buildings cannot be turned down, however, and these are typically the ones you most want to turn down, but that's life in Minute Realms.

Once everyone has taken a card and either built it or faceplanted it, you throw away the two cards in the center, rotate the start player position, advance the stack of invaders on the round tracker board, then do it again. At the end of the fourth round, you reveal any invaders who have showed up, and any player who doesn't have enough defense to match the strength of the invaders must flip one of their flippable buildings face down. The invaders burnt it down, so you made the best of the situation by turning the rubble into a bastion. You then do this four more rounds, then face the invaders once again, this time summing all the invaders who popped in over the course of eight rounds.


25 points, thanks to four categories and the ? being either clerical, military, or production


As a card game, Minute Realms has all the ups and downs that you'd expect of such. Sometimes your purse is empty, and a fountain that will give you four coins as a trading requirement lands on the table as a gift unto you — and then sometimes that fountain lands in front of you when the trading requirement is void. No coins for you! Sometimes you're skirting on the edge of probability and hoping that lone invader token is a 1 or 0, and you're able to take the card in front of you to remove the lone invader icon from play so that no one else can trade for it and direct the invaders to your door — and sometimes you can't.

I've played Minute Realms seven times on a pre-production copy from dV Giochi — once with five players, twice with three, and four times with two — and while that number might seem excessive for someone just previewing a game, it turned out to be a great experience. The deck scales to match the player count, so with experience you always know the buildings that comprise the deck; they come out at random, of course, but after a few playings, you start to know what's in the deck and you can anticipate what might be coming out in the rounds that remain. You get a feel for the rhythm of spending and collecting coins, although I can't pretend to be good at it or even think there's an ideal way to do it.


Building cards you might encounter


Best of all, I was surprised in the seventh game when one of my opponents morphed into an attack strategy halfway through the game. The other two of us initially laughed about him repeatedly choosing cards that featured invaders, but we didn't conceive of it as a strategy until near the end of the game when we both realized that we had been building defensively while he had just plowed ahead with a face-up building strategy, being content to lose one building when the horde of invaders came because that would still leave everything else standing — and even with the defenses we had built, the other player and I still took a hit from the invaders, giving our attack-heavy friend the victory.

I've harped plenty of times on the value of a reviewer listing how often they've played a game, and this experience was yet another example of why that's important. After five playings, I thought Minute Realms a decent set-collection game, albeit somewhat dry with two as you had only four choices available each round and you were often content to take an action that would hurt the opponent as a way of helping yourself, but then I finally played it with three players and found it brisk and more lively, then again with three to discover this new approach to the game. Sometimes you just don't know what you're going to find in a game until it hits you in the face and flips your building upside down, so best not to pretend that you've figured everything out; instead, be up front with your audience as to what your experience has been and let them figure out for themselves what they think about the game.


More building cards
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Fri Sep 29, 2017 1:05 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Multiple, or Saved by Zero

W. Eric Martin
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Many games from amateur Japanese designers seem to be born from the notion of taking an idea and saying, "Can we make a game out of that?" Then they do it. The quality of the games can be all over the place, but I love seeing the creative spirit in action, particularly because the ideas are often ones you wouldn't find elsewhere. Plus, I love trying card games of all types, and no one delivers card games like amateur Japanese designers.

Takashi Yamaya's Multiple from doujin publisher KUA seems to have been born along these lines. The number deck consists of four copies each of the numbers 0-9, the addition sign (+), and the subtraction sign (-). Players receive seven cards at random and place them face up on the table in front of them. Be the first player to rid yourself of cards, and you win the game — but you can't just throw the cards on the floor. Oh, no, you must get rid of them by creating multiples of target numbers.


Why are the numbers made of wood? What Japanese pun am I missing?


How does this work? One player takes the mission deck, then reveals the top card, which shows something like "Multiples of 5". If possible, this player then creates a multiple of 5 using one or more cards in front of them, then discards those cards. You can use a single card (which isn't possible here), two cards to create a two-digit number (again not possible), or multiple single numbers that are connected by one or more addition or subtraction signs. Success! You have both 9 - 4 and 7 - 2. Which do you want to use?

If you can't or don't want to use your cards to create a multiple of the target number — which will be 3, 4, 5, or 7 — then you draw a new card from the number deck to give yourself something else that you need to discard. That's the opposite of progress, sure, but that's how games work, by making things difficult.

You can't create a multiple that someone else has already used for a mission, so if you have choices, look around the table to see who you can block. You also can't use 0 as a multiple, which seems reasonable given that while 0 is indeed a multiple of all numbers, creating a 0 to rid yourself of cards is lame.

A couple of missions force all players to draw a card, then the active player must draw a new mission. Anti-progress strikes again!




I've played Multiple three times on a review copy from Japon Brand, which will sell the game at SPIEL '17, once each with two, three, and four players. After playing, one of the players joked that it was almost a game, yet when we played again with someone who had just arrived at the game table, I did far better than I did the first time.

In the first game with two players, our number card counts bobbed up and down like corks on a wave, but in the second and third games I had an idea of which mission cards remained in the deck and I played to those probabilities. You can still be thwarted in that effort by the "draw a card" mission or the missions that prohibit you from using the addition or subtraction signs, but even so, you can play better than you did the first time. You realize that you can string together multiple signs to create a target, e.g., 8 - 4 + 1, or that you might want to save a 5 or 0 in case a "multiple of 5" card is revealed. Okay, you probably don't want to save a 0; they seem terrible, aside from making an easy 30, 40, 50, or 70, in which case they're golden.

I'm probably overthinking this, aren't I?


Don't forget to trigger earworms when possible
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Thu Sep 28, 2017 7:05 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Iquazú, or Majorities on the Falls

W. Eric Martin
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German publisher HABA kicked off its family game line in 2015 with Adventure Land, Spookies, and Rüdiger Dorn's Karuba, which went on to pick up a Spiel des Jahres nomination in 2016.

The company released more family games in 2016, and for 2017 it's going even bigger, releasing Karuba: The Card Game (as well as a Karuba Junior for its traditional audience of younger players), the somewhat traditional roll-dice-to-get-stuff King of the Dice (to be previewed later), the abstract-ish card-laying game CONEX, the firecracker-tossing Boom, Bang, Gold, and the game I'm talking about today: Michael Feldkötter's Iquazú.

A glance at the cover of Iquazú might have you thinking of Avatar, but the gameplay is set in the Iguazú Falls located on the border of Argentina and Brazil. I'm guessing that "Iquazú" is how Germans spell "Iguazú", although the name change might be used to indicate that the action in this game takes place on an alternate Earth, one in which the Inox tribe — which includes you — wants to hide their gems for safekeeping behind the Iguazú waterfalls. To do this, they have called upon their water dragon Silon to temporarily block the flow of the river so that they can embed their gems in the rocky walls behind the falls.

All of which is a familiar genre premise to set up the somewhat fiddly, yet extremely cool mechanism that represents the falls, which can be seen below in this set-up for two players:




Okay, that shows you the bits in the game: a box of gems in four colors with each player using only one of those colors, a box of wooden water droplets, cards in three colors, a scoring track, and...something in the middle that isn't exactly clear. How about we look at this close-up image instead?


Several turns into a two-player game


Yes, there we go! The colored spaces on the rock wall represent holes where you can stash gems. Why are these spots in three colors? Because otherwise you wouldn't have much of a game. In terms of the setting, I'm not sure what these colors are supposed to represent — perhaps the different colors of vines down which you must rappel in order to reach this location — but whatever it is, these colors matter during the game, so pay attention to them.

On a turn, you either draw four cards from the deck (with these cards showing one of the three colors on the rock wall) or you play 1-5 cards of the same color to place a gem on a hole in the rock wall of that same color. Why 1-5 cards? Because the more cards you play, the farther to the right you can place that gem.


Underneath the dragon are numbers 1-5, showing how many cards you must play to place in each column


What's the point of all this? Distracting yourself from the terrors of the outside world? Perhaps so, but more specifically you want to place gems in a better way than your fellow tribe members, and the only way such things are measured are in points.

More specifically, each column of the rock wall will be scored once during the game, and when it's scored, the player with the most gems in that column scores the most points available for that column, the player with the secondmost gems scores the secondmost points, and so on — but note that in a game with n players, only n-1 players will score points in a column. If players are tied in gem count, then the player with the bottommost gem breaks the tie. Let's assume that they took more chances rappelling down the rock face and are now being rewarded.

But wait, there's more! Whenever a column is scored, you also look for majorities in each row, with a bonus token being given to whoever has the most gems in that row; ties are broken by whoever has the gem farthest to the right, with the bottommost right position being the final tiebreaker. These bonus tokens net you:

• Points, which can be hidden for now and added to your score at game's end for a "surprise" ending
• Cards, with you spending those tokens whenever you choose
• A joker ability so that you can fill a hole by discarding the right number of cards without care for their color
• An extra turn, which is the best bonus of all, so fight for these!

You can use as many bonus tokens as you want on a turn, and since the points for each column escalate as the game progresses, you'll likely want to save these for critical turns in the future.


My green gem is far behind near the end of a four-player game — so sad


That's almost the entire game. All of these components assembled in this elaborate structure are in the service of you either drawing cards or spending cards to place a gem each turn — with one exception. The last player in turn order at the start of the game holds a box of water droplets, and at the end of this player's turn, they place a droplet in the highest empty space in the leftmost column. The dragon is moving slowly across the falls, and the water is starting to drip down as it moves.

This drip-drip-drip functions just like any other drip-drip-drip you've encountered in music or movies. It's a timing device, something to ensure that the game keeps moving; more importantly, the drips pressure you and influence what you want to do because they will fill open spaces in the current column, perhaps locking in majorities that you wanted to challenge, whether the lone vertical column that will be scored or the five bonus actions available when that scoring takes place.


Scoring in four steps: score points & bonuses, remove part of the falls, slide the falls right, replace falls and reveal new bonuses


As much as Iquazú is about majorities, the game is also about timing. I've played five times on a preproduction copy from HABA — four times with two players and once with four — and the more you play, the more you start paying attention to the rhythm of the game. You know that 0-n gems (or possibly more due to bonus turns) will be added to the board each turn, along with one water drop; you see what everyone is fighting for, whether due to intent or due to them having certain cards; you know that in at most x turns the column will fill, the waterfall will advance, and bonuses will be distributed, so what will you do in those turns?

Timing plays out in multiple ways during the game. If a column fills and scores, and the next column is already full, then it will score as well — but only after you've slid the waterfall right, hiding the leftmost column of gems and revealing a new set of bonus tokens to be distributed. Yes, more bonuses! The cost to place gems in the rightmost columns is high, but they'll factor in to you winning bonus tokens multiple times, probably more than paying back that investment although you don't know what the bonuses will be until the waterfall moves.

Another timing element comes into play each time a column scores, because after doing everything else, the player holding the water droplets pass them to the right, thus shifting responsibility to someone else, while also giving them more control over when a scoring takes place. When you have those droplets, you can close two spots in the leftmost column, giving you a greater opportunity to score when the time is right; if you have an extra turn bonus, your control is even greater — which might inspire someone else to close the column so that you have pass along the waterbox before you get much use out of it.


Bonuses during set-up before you add the falls


The final three columns score all at once, with a huge payoff for the leftmost column and middling (yet still meaningful) points for the two remaining rock columns. The final two columns of bonuses are nothing but points since other rewards hold little interest by that point. You should have already spent your collected bonuses for cards, extra turns, or (far less rarely) color-changing joker powers. Leave nothing in reserve!


The rock wall is comprised of five double-sided game boards


In short, Iquazú plays out like multiple, old-school overlapping area majority games, with the moving waterfall shifting the balance of each player's holdings over the course of the game. Despite its straightforward gameplay Iquazú takes a while to set up, but the waterfall structure is ingenious, exemplifying the effort that HABA puts into a design to create a particular experience during play.


Your box will likely have external graphics...and an insert
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Wed Sep 27, 2017 7:41 pm
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SPIEL '17 Preview: Azul, or Tiling Up Your Hopes and Dreams

W. Eric Martin
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I've already posted an overview of Michael Kiesling's Azul, which Plan B Games will debut at SPIEL '17 in October, but now I've played the game many more times since then — ten total on a pre-production copy and a review copy, four times with four players and six times with two — so let's talk about it some more.

In a recent preview of a new edition of Alex Randolph's Venice Connection, I talked about that game's Nim-style gameplay. Nim is extremely basic: Start with three or more heaps of objects, then take turns with another player to remove any number of objects from precisely one heap; whoever removes the last object wins. Unfortunately, Nim is also solved, which makes it uninteresting to play — but the framework of Nim gives you a great structure upon which other better games can be built.

Azul is one of those games.

Now, the premise of Azul is ridiculous. You're supposed to be a tile-laying artist who has "been challenged to embellish the walls of the Royal Palace of Evora" in order to impress King Manuel I, but at most you'll complete a 5x5 grid of tiles and in most cases you won't have more than a couple of lines of tiles on that grid with numerous holes throughout, and I daresay that only the daftest of kings would be impressed by such a half-assed display of tilery. Perhaps that 5x5 grid is meant to suggest some larger tile-pattern that will be used throughout the palace, but even then you think the king would look at your unfinished work and suggest that you'd be better off as a sheep herder.

No matter. The premise of the game is mere window dressing on what's going to get you to the table — the wonderfully chunky colored bits — and keep you coming back to the table after that first playing, that being the Nim-style gameplay alluded to earlier.

At the start of each round, you fill up five, seven, or nine discs (depending on whether you have two, three, or four players) with four tiles drawn at random from a bag, then place a first player marker in the center of the table. You take turns choosing a disc or the center of the table, then taking all tiles of one color from this location and placing them in a single row on your personal player board; if you chose a disc, then you push any remaining tiles into the center of the table. If you're the first person to choose the center, you take the first player marker along with your chosen tiles.


The start of a three-player game; what do you want?


If you can't fit all of the titles into your row of choice, with the rows being 1-5 spaces in length, then excess tiles "fall" to the bottom of your player board, with you being penalized for such waste at round's end. You can add more tiles to a row you've already started as long as all the tiles are the same color.

You take turns choosing tiles until they've all been claimed, then for each complete row on your player board, you move one of those tiles into the matching-colored space on the same row in the 5x5 grid. You score points for each of these moved tiles, and if you can cluster those tile placements, you score more points. Tiles in incomplete rows stay where they are, while all excess tiles from completed rows are placed in a discard pile. Continue to play rounds this way until someone completes a horizontal row on their grid. At the end of this round, the game ends and you score bonus points for completed rows (not much), completed columns (worth more), and completed colors (the best of all).

That's it — Azul in three paragraphs, three dry paragraphs that don't get across the wonderful tenseness that develops during the game. In that first round, you're mostly trying to grab whatever seems best. Can you take three tiles of the same color? Then do that. Can you take only two? Then do that. But wait? Which tiles are being pushed into the middle, and how many of them lie on other discs? Which color did the player before you take, and are you giving them a gift of tiles on their next turn? You feel things out, take this or that, then the round ends, you score a few points, then the game picks up from there.

Now you all have investments, whether tiles in your grid or rows of tiles in waiting, and those claimed colors — both by you and everyone else — start affecting everything else that you do. Does the player behind you need two yellow to complete a row? Take them for yourself! Make them take actions to scratch out only a single tile each turn, thereby possibly dumping multiples of colors in the middle that you can then scoop up.


Not a great first round, having completed only two rows — that dark blue tile will be removed


The same number of tiles are put into play each round (except possibly in the four-player game when the bag runs low because so many tiles have been used), but those tiles needn't be distributed evenly. You want to grab great globs of them for yourself so that you can complete those four- and five-space rows quickly and repeatedly. If you let those rows drag along half-filled from one round to the next, then you have little hope of completing columns or grabbing five tiles of the same color, and that's where you land the big points, so be greedy at the expense of others, and the only ways to be greedy are to:

1. Pay attention to who's taking what, and
2. Take tiles from the right places at the right times.

This latter aspect of the game only starts emerging after your first couple of rounds. You realize that if you had taken that one red tile from the center instead of the final disc then someone else would have taken a tile from that disc, possibly allowing you to grab three blue tiles instead of two since one blue was dumped into the center. Or you see three blue already in the center and realize that everyone else either already has blue in their fourth and fifth rows or is at work on some other color and can't take blue, so you let it sit a round to build up to four or more tiles so that you can complete a row in one go. Anyone who's drafted in Magic: The Gathering or other games will recognize this tension: How long can you wait to take something? Will someone else snatch it first? What's more, can you wait longer so that the pot builds?


Round #2 begins with you going second; what are you aiming to collect?


I picture the ending of each round in Azul as the moment in The Matrix Revolutions when Neo and Trinity briefly rise above the clouds to spy sunlight they would have never expected to see — only to then plummet downward into the thick of battle once again where fresh tiles have been laid out and everyone is fighting and you're not sure what's going to happen. (I apologize for making you think about The Matrix Revolutions.) The rising tension mimics that feeling of when you're reaching for cards in a new round of a trick-taking game: What's possible this time? How can you score what you need and dodge the rest of the time?

Azul is even tighter at two players because you know that whichever tiles you don't get, the other player will, and this makes the Nim comparison even more evident: If I take this tile, then you'll likely take those two, which means I can take these and possibly set myself up for those the turn after. I might want to take these four tiles, but if I can leave them and force you to take them when you have no room, then you'll lose six points, which is pretty much the same as me gaining six points.

You can still do such things with four players, though, and this can be even more satisfying. You see that the next player likely wants a black tile and the person after that a yellow, so if you take this blue (when otherwise you might not have cared which color you took), then player #4 gets stuck with lots of tiles they can't use. Yay, collaborative kneecapping! We used similar tactics in my most recent game to ensure that a player couldn't grab two black tiles to complete a row and therefore trigger the end of the game. (He was the only player who had four tiles in a row.) We hadn't counted out the endgame bonuses, but that player seemed to be in the lead, so we wanted more time and took turns pushing him away from the door.


Possible trouble ahead


I haven't even mentioned the gray variant game board — not advanced, mind you, but "variant", although I'd advise playing on the colored side for your first game or two. When you play on the gray board, you place tiles under the same restrictions, with each row and column of your 5x5 grid allowed to have each color only once, but outside of that you have the freedom to place a tile anywhere in a row.

What has happened in my games is that scores are higher since you can cluster the tiles as soon as you place them, but you also tend to box yourself into corners that will be increasingly unpleasant as the game continues. In the image above, I'm on my way to completing a column — assuming that I can finish the second and fourth rows before the round ends (or the game, really) — but if I place black in the fourth spot in that column, then I'll need to place black in the fifth spot of the adjacent column, but I can't even start working on that black row until I clear out the yellow, and that yellow's not going to score my much anyway, but I've started it, so now I need to end it. If I instead place the black in the fourth spot of the middle column, then I can't place both the light blue and yellow in the second column or else I doom myself to never completing the column since black would have to go in the fourth spot and can't.

Whenever you take tiles, as with those yellow in the bottom row, you can choose to dump them on the floor instead of placing them in a row, but that's like purposefully stepping on a nail. Better to get small points than negative points, right? Maybe?


83 points, despite flubbing the top row


My only regret with Azul right now is that I have many more games to preview ahead of SPIEL '17, so I won't be able to play it as much as I want. I realize that might sound like bragging rather than an actual regret, but it's not. To do a good job in this space, I can't post over and over again about the same game, but thankfully Azul will wait for me until I call once again. That waiting time for the tiling shouldn't be a problem given the king's low expectations...
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Mon Sep 25, 2017 8:00 pm
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